BrandJapan is an annual appraisal of the brand equity of one thousand Japanese brands from the view of consumers (B to C) and business managers (B to B). Each year I provide a commentary on the results. The 2013 data just became available, and it again provides insights into what drives winning brands in Japan.

In the consumer database (B to C), the big news is that Apple, who had advanced from 11 to number one in 2012 is not only still number one but has created a significant gap over Google, which remains at number two. The iPod and iPad brands have fallen from the top 20 but are still top forty brands, and iPhone has moved to number 18 meaning that Apple has four of the top 40 brands. Furthermore, Apple’s lead on the innovation factor over Google is now huge (132 vs. 108). The seven Apple stores and the elegant success of the iPhone helped the Apple brand achieve a leadership position.

Among the top 25 brands, 10 were retail brands led by Uniqlo (tied with Google at number 2 and with its HEATTECH clothing brand in the top 50) that included Daiso (like dollar stores), 7-11, Muji, two Internet retailers (Amazon and the Japanese firm Rakuten) and four retail food brands (McDonald’s, MOS BURGER, Haagen-Dazs, and Starbucks). There were five tech brands in the top 25 in addition to the two Apple brands with Google, YouTube and Windows in the top 10 and Panasonic and Sony following. Each tech brand was high on the “used recently’ and “being a pioneer” scales. Six of the top 25 were popular packaged goods brands such as Calbee (salty snacks), Nissin (cup noodles) and Suntory, all in the top ten. They all are very high on the friendly dimension. And two entertainment brands, Studio Ghibli (animated film company) and Disney were in the top seven brands with Studio Ghibli moving up from twelve to five. There was a theme to these results.

The strongest brands in Japan have three characteristics:

  1. They are visible, and most of the population is exposed to them frequently.
  2. They are innovative providing interest and energy.
  3. They are relevant in that they are widely used and capable of delivering exceptional use experiences.

The retail brands are all ubiquitous; you see them everywhere. And they all have new products, new menus and new technologies to create a sense of innovation and energy. The tech brands are all widely used and represent the cutting edge of innovation from a consumer perspective. The top package goods brands are sold everywhere and are known for constantly launching new products. Nissin, for example, creates hundreds of new noodle products each year, complete with witty names and colorful packages supported by entertaining ads. The entertainment brands share these characteristics with Disney, for example, which created a new ride this year, and Studio Ghibli which has a flow of new involving films and associated offerings.

On the B to C side, Calbee rose from 19 to 8, and its score on the friendliness dimension shot up from 86 to 94, far above the next brand. Always full of energy, the brand benefited from the new hit product “Vegips,” six demonstration retail shops, and their program of having fans vote for new flavors.

Also of note is the fact that prominent global brands like Singapore Airlines, Samsung, Citibank, Calvin Klein, and Jaguar did not make the top half of the consumer survey and even brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Polo Ralph Lauren were not among the top 225 brands. There are different reasons but clearly, becoming relevant in Japan for a global brand is not easy especially when they lack scale and visibility.

Again, the automobile brands were unable to break into the top consumer survey. The only brands to make the top 200 were Toyota at 30 (and again number 1 on the social responsibility scale), Honda at 69, Prius at 100, and Nissan at 104. Clearly in today’s Japan, an automobile does not delivering self-expressive and social benefits. In fact, not owning a car may be seen as a positive in Japanese society. However, the big three auto firms are clearly respected by people in the business space (B2B data base), regarded as well managed, innovative, successful, and a good place to work. In the business database, Toyota was again number one, Honda number four and Nissan number 19.

In the business database, the number two and three brands after Toyota were Apple and Google. I suspect that the strength of these two brands in the consumer world is recognized when they’re evaluated as organizations. Honda, Panasonic, and Oriental Land retained their top six positions from last year demonstrating the durability of a reputation momentum. Bridgestone (who moved from 30 to 13) and the retailer Aeon (from 51 to 20) might be rising stars among Japanese brands going global as both have had success in foreign markets. The Tanita brand, which makes bathroom scales and related products, went from 38 to 8 in the business survey in part because of the energy created by their hit recipe book that sold over 5 million copies and a restaurant serving the same healthy menu used at their office. Talk about an energizer. In the consumer data, the Tanita brand continued its rise going from 107 to 60 with a top ten finish on innovativeness, impressive for such a specialized business.

These top brands support the premise that energy, visibility and relevance should be a key objective of all brands.